What is an alternative provider?

An alternative provider (AP) is defined as any provider of higher education (HE) courses in the UK which:

  • does not directly receive annual funding from HEFCE or its equivalent bodies in the devolved administrations
  • does not receive direct annual public funding
  • is not a further education college.

The AP sector is an incredibly diverse part of HE. Beyond the criteria above, APs can have very little else in common.

For example, some APs have several thousand students, and some of them have around 20 (source 15/16 HESA, Statistical First Release). Some APs provide dozens of different courses, whereas others focus on a single area. Some focus mainly on specialist vocational qualifications, whereas some offer traditional graduate and post-graduate degrees. Much of what APs do challenges the traditional models of HE delivery.

Can students at APs receive student loans?

Not all APs have students who are able to access Student Loans Company (SLC) loans. In order for students to access support, APs have to apply for ‘specific course designation’ (SCD) from the Department for Education (DfE). APs must demonstrate that they meet criteria set by DfE with regards to quality, course eligibility, academic performance, financial sustainability, management, and governance.

Course designation is provided on a course-by-course basis. Some APs have a mix of designated and non-designated courses.

Members of the joint HEFCE-DfE Alternative Provider Intelligence Unit (APIU) engage regularly with all APs who have SCD – currently numbering 112. They can be found on the HEFCE Register of providers.

Aren’t they all private, for-profit businesses?

The idea that all APs are profit-driven is untrue: they have a very diverse set of business models.

Some are for-profit companies – ranging from private businesses to subsidiaries of global corporations. But about 40% are charities – some stand-alone, others part of larger charities – which retain any surpluses to further invest in their charitable objectives.

Aren’t all APs new to the UK HE market?

Some APs are very new to the UK HE sector, joining only in the last few years. However, some of them are very well established – for example, City and Guilds of London Art School was established in 1854, and the London Institute of Banking and Finance was established in 1879. This makes them comparable in age with most red brick universities. Some of the UK’s best known names are APs, including Christie’s Auction House, The Salvation Army, and Tottenham Hotspurs Foundation.

Aren’t APs all based in London?

Technically, it is true that the majority of APs are based in the greater London area.

At present, there are 112 APs with SCD. Of these, 58 are based in greater London, compared with 54 based outside London. The latter are spread throughout the country, including Manchester (4), Birmingham (3), Nottingham (3), Bristol (3), Bath (2), Reading (2), Oxford (2), Cambridge (2), Guildford (2), and Salford (2).

There are some APs with SCD that are based outside England. If they have English students wishing to claim SLC loans, they must obtain SCD. Due to this, there are APs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Lots of APs, such as ALRA, BIMM, ForMission and Moorlands College, have multiple campus locations, extending the coverage of APs across the country. If we count all the campus locations, then 68 are based within greater London compared with 62 based outside London. The following map plots the spread of APs’ campus locations across the UK (as of 17 August 2017):


APs often operate under a different model to traditional higher education institutions (HEIs). Location is one example of this difference. Traditional HEIs are usually associated strongly with their location: indeed, their town, city or area is often part of their name and therefore forms a large part of their identity. Conversely, many APs are not specifically tied to any particular place. For example BPP University has campuses across the UK – in Abingdon, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Croydon, Leeds, Liverpool, London and Manchester.

There are many misconceptions about APs. Fortunately, many of them are easy to clear up!

This blog post is one of a series on alternative providers. In other posts, we look at how APs are regulated, and at some of the unique ways that APs contribute to the HE sector.

Browse our webpages for alternative providers